Executives Who Really Want Diversity Must Reconsider their Public Words

1920s business men around a banquet tableImagine the scene: A large hotel conference room in America filled mostly by white males in dark suits and plain shirts. A coterie of darker-skinned servers works the sea of tables. An older white male emcees the proceedings, and another asks everyone to bow their heads in prayer before delivering a Judeo-Christian blessing. After lunch, the keynote speaker talks about the need to increase spending on public education, but of course does not suggest raising taxes to pay for it in a room of people earning well above the average income. He goes on to talk wistfully of a past America built by people who came here for the opportunity of building a better life.

You may be trying to recall which episode of “Mad Men” I am describing, the TV series depicting life in the advertising business in the 1960s. Everyone in power in the series was white, Jewish or Christian, and publicly straight. One of the subplots was the success of one woman who fights her way into the money-making side of the business. Sadly, though, the events above occurred this month, at a joint showcase of the North Carolina Bankers’ Association and N.C. Chamber of Commerce.

I am not going to wade into the larger discussion about political correctness. My focus here is the disconnect between business leaders claiming to want inclusive workplaces and their behaviors that unwittingly reduce inclusiveness. Having made my share of well-intended mistakes along these lines, I claim no moral high ground. Instead I am sharing what I have learned so far as an evidence-based manager. One of those lessons is, it is not enough to treat everybody equally. You have to go the next step and consider how actions acceptable to the majority will affect the minority in your company or industry.

The word “diversity” came up at least once at the luncheon, maybe twice. Impressively qualified people who happened to be an African-American man and two women were among the eight panelists. (However, the emcee introduced one of the latter, a Kari, as “Karl.”) There was an equally qualified Asian American panelist, though whoever occupied his job title would have been invited.

But the high-profile CEO’s keynote did not mention that for the first 300 or so years, only white Protestants with sufficient means to get here and make a start (or willing to enslave themselves for seven years as “indentured servants”) were encouraged, or in some colonies/states allowed, to come to America… that the lands they were using were stolen from the native people already here… that the majority of people who literally built America were brought here against their will and forced to do the work on pain of torture.

One wonders how the servers felt about his words, and more to my point, the relative minority of minority attendees. There were a few blacks among the attendees, far lower than their share of the state’s population, and a fair number of people presenting as female, though well below 50%. Whatever these banks are doing to become diverse in their upper ranks isn’t working, given that two generations of managers have passed through since Dr. Martin Luther King’s murder.

Setting aside that all of us have unconscious biases, I am not accusing anyone of intended racism, sexism, or religionism. I am quite sure every association-member bank tries to encourage diversity and inclusion in its ranks. (That said, I could find no mention of either word on the association Web site, even in the long list under “Issues & Advocacy.”) The point I am trying to make is that we in the majority will never achieve “inclusion” if we don’t understand the chilling effect of our public words on minorities.

A trade association of which I am a proud member, the N.C. Technology Association, has made far greater strides, I think. It is sponsoring a conference on diversity and inclusion this March. However, it recently gave an award to a top leader who admitted onstage earlier in the year he had discriminated against older workers. (Instantly realizing what he had done, he half-joked he would deny he’d said that outside of the room.) During his acceptance speech he launched into several overtly Christian statements. I’m glad he enjoys being Christian, and he has a civil right to proclaim his faith publicly. But he obviously didn’t realize, or didn’t care, how this would make anyone in his company feel who wasn’t Christian.

If you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, imagine your boss declaring in a business forum, “I want to thank Satan for helping me succeed,” or, “My success despite being an atheist is proof there is no god.” Overt religious statements like these or that CEO’s contribute to a hostile workplace for people not of the CEO’s religion. Even my most politically conservative, Christian friend was appalled when I relayed this story.

Turning my guns on myself, I was not naturally a hugger even as a child, and in my adolescence I hated to be touched by anybody (except women I found attractive). But based on scientific evidence, as a manager I came to believe strongly in the power of appropriate types of touch to build relationships. So for years I would give pats on the back and shoulder squeezes to employees, peers, and even bosses, making damn sure I did so only publicly, and to everyone regardless of gender, race, etc. Now I know that doing so without an overt sign the other person welcomed this had the opposite-from-intended effect. It likely harmed my relationships with some people more than it improved them with the rest. I hereby publicly apologize to all whom this bothered, and to those I may bother in the future when I don’t catch myself because it became such a habit.

I am trying to change my behavior despite believing most business relations would be helped if we all were comfortable with a degree of kin-like touching. We aren’t, and I know from the evidence that diverse workforces provide benefits to companies, so now I am erring on the side of inclusiveness. To gain those benefits, if not for moral/ethical reasons, executives must be willing to consider the impact of their words on all types of minorities, and apply the same self-restraint they would show when meeting with a diverse board of directors.

Here’s how I know they can: They do it already. As an older white cis-male from the American South, I know from direct exposure that a number of business leaders have private beliefs anathema to many of their employees and directors, beliefs full of -isms. To their credit, I also know most hide them from those employees, try not to act upon those beliefs, and don’t knowingly block efforts to diversify their workforces. However, both “leading by example” and “servant leadership” means we older white cis-males must go further if we wish to maximize the benefits of inclusion for our companies’ bottom lines.


Tell the world: